“Colton Herta, Red Bull and the Re-Invention of Super Licence Qualifiers”

In the unlikely event Colton Herta earns a Super Licence dispensation from the FIA, it would prove an interesting workaround for an unintended consequence.

It may even force a badly needed re-evaluation or even dissolution of the entire Super Licence Points System, although without some humility, that change is unlikely.

While it may have had relevant foundations in 2015, as it currently stands, the Super Licence Points System is no longer fit for purpose.

Following Max Verstappen’s lightning-fast promotion to Formula One, the Super Licence Points System was designed as a qualifying measure for younger drivers aiming for a seat in Formula One via the numerous single-seater categories globally.

With a myriad of championships available, the single-seater route was deeply complex, requiring expert navigation and determined partners, and while there were opportunities aplenty to race, the unregulated nature of the Formula One ladder left that route unfocussed.

Formula One’s then primary feeder categories – GP2 and GP3 – were beginning to struggle against their comparative peers. They had become bloated and expensive, with precious little seat time compared to rival categories, such as Formula Renault 3.5 and the European F3 Championship, both of which absorbed talent, as they offered extensive seat time and heightened competition.
In the melee, junior driver programmes also began to look away from the standard Formula One feeder categories, preferring their drivers race in more challenging series’ away from the immediate eyes of the world.
It was hugely successful and between 2011 and 2014, Formula Renault 3.5 proved a final stepping-stone to Formula One for Daniel Ricciardo, Jules Bianchi, Jean-Éric Vergne, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz among others {note 1}, while several drivers moved from European F3 to Formula Renault, rather than move to the Formula One junior paddock.

“Is Nikita Mazepin Good Enough for F1? Well, It’s C

Despite these successes, the FIA Single-Seat Commission looked at ways to tighten up the route to Formula One, while also reinvigorating the accepted pathway to the top of the single-seater pyramid. This drive was deepened when Verstappen jumped from karting to a Formula One drive, via Formula Three, in the space of fifteen months.

To tackle this, the Single-Seat Commission created the Super Licence Points System to force young drivers to spend at least two-to-three years tackling the lower rungs, with a view to promoting experience over fast-track moves {note 2}. At the same time, the FIA also introduced a minimum age limit of 18 years for drivers hoping to bag a seat at motorsport’s top level.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Super Licence Points System was not created to keep desperately unqualified drivers out of Formula One; however, that has been a consequence of it, particularly with the haphazard way it applies points standards to well established international championships.

With AlphaTauri potentially losing Pierre Gasly to Alpine, attempts by the team’s parent company, Red Bull Racing, to import Colton Herta from Indycar as replacement look set to fail.
Herta does not currently qualify for a Super Licence via the traditional method, as he falls eight points short of what is required. Red Bull have argued that Herta should have points from his excluded 2018 Indy Lights campaign instated {note 3}, but it appears that rival teams have rallied against this exception.

“Some Super Licence Points Pointers”

For Red Bull and Herta, timing is everything. The original framework for the Points System was to capture points collated over the course of three calendar years, although during the period of disrupted racing from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was altered so drivers could calculate their best three seasons over four calendar years {note 4}. This has not yet been repealed.
The latter point is critical for Herta, as this exceptional ruling brings his 2018 Indy Lights season into the frame. Should a decision be made that favours the inclusion of that campaign, Herta would then have the additional points necessary to qualify for a Super Licence; however, that 2018 count expires on December 31st of this year.

This means that, if successful, Herta would need to apply for a Super Licence before the end of this calendar year, thereby obtaining a 2022 Super Licence, all the while knowing that a drive in 2022 is not the goal. However, Super Licences are granted annually and to take part drivers must renew those licences at least two weeks prior to the opening round of the next World Championship.
If Red Bull’s request is granted and Herta earns the Super Licence points, he will need the Super Licence approved for 2022 in order to reapply on January 1st for a 2023 entry into Formula One.

But it must be asked, why is this even a point of discussion? Given IndyCar’s position as an internationally recognised single-seater category, Herta’s exclusion does raise the question as to the relevance of placing top-level championships within the Super Licence Points System.
Indycar is, after all, an extremely competent category with some of the fastest racing machinery in the world, populated by competitors who are either ex-F1 drivers, greatly experienced continental racers, or drivers who have already completed the well-worn route to Formula One, only to find the door closed on the other end.

Were an Indycar driver look to move to Formula One, there is little reason why a competency test, with specific structured tasks, could not be conducted to ensure competitors operate to a reasonable standard on track.
The same could also be said for the likes of Super Formula and Formula E – the latter of which is an FIA world championship, that possesses its own variation of the regulated licence points system.

“The Folly of Licence Points Systems”

There are other qualifiers within the Super Licence Points System that raises questions as to its application. So far apart are they from Formula One, it makes little sense that categories such as WTCR, DTM, NASCAR Cup and National, Super GT500, WEC and IMSA GT, and international GT series’ appear in the Points System, given their vaguely distant relation to Formula One.
Many of these entries smack of additions for the sake of addition; an acknowledgement of a series’ existence by placing it within a framework that bears little relevance to the championships at play.

Adding the likes of Indycar, Formula E, Super Formula and the above tin-top categories to the Super Licence Points System is tokenism at its finest. They deserve better than that and so too do the competitors therein.

{note 1}
Graduates from the early years of Formula Renault 3.5 and its previous iterations – World Series by Nissan and World Series by Opal –include Robert Kubica, Sebastian Vettel, Heikki Kovalainen, Justin Wilson, Tiago Monteiro, Franck Montagny, Marc Gene, Narain Karthikeyan and Jaime Alguersuari. Fernando Alonso also won the category in 1999, before moving very briefly to International Formula 3000.

{note 2}
When signed by Toro Rosso in August 2014, Verstappen was still only 16-years-old having – at that point – only competed in two-thirds of a European F3 season, as well as taking part in a five-weekend stint in the once-off Florida Winter Series. Beyond those few races and some Formula Renault 2.0 testing, the young Dutch racer was incredibly green, but the talent was obvious.
After a brief tussle between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes, the latter reportedly offered Verstappen a place in a GP2 programme with a top team, whereas Red Bull could place the teenager directly into the Toro Rosso F1 team. All that was needed was to eject Jean-Eric Vergne.
While the FIA could do nothing to halt the Verstappen debut – the Super Licence had been earned pretty quickly in those days – they saw an opportunity to create a barrier to stop such a move happening again.

{note 3}
Herta’s cannot currently claim Super Licence points for his runner-up position in the 2018 Indy Lights series, as the category did not achieve the minimum number of competitors to be considered viable. To be considered eligible, a category must comprise of a minimum of five race weekends, held on a minimum of three circuits, with sixteen full-season entries and a minimum of twelve at any given event.
If a series signs up between twelve and fifteen full-season entries, then 75% of the Super Licence Points are awarded, but if a series only possesses eleven or fewer full-season entries, then no Super Licence points are awarded.
While the 2018 Indy Lights season met the first two criteria, it did not meet the final one, as the series ran only between seven and eight drivers during the campaign.

{note 4}
The exception ruling was introduced part of the way through the 2020 when it became clear that drivers were missing out on championships due to VISA issues. Some made different arrangements, but the driver most affected by the change was the then Red Bull junior, Jüri Vips.
Having secured a Super Formula drive with Team Mugen, Vips was due to race in Japan, only for that to fall foul of the COVID pandemic regulations. Ultimately Vips was unable to obtain a VISA to enter Japan, but meanwhile entered several Formula Regional European Championship (FREC) rounds, before replacing an injured Sean Gelael in Formula 2.
Vips’ Formula 2 appearances caused him to miss several FREC rounds. Having not raced in Super Formula and only taken part in partial FREC and Formula 2 campaigns, Vips did not compete in enough rounds of any of these championships to earn Super Licence points.
Aware of the potential of this growing issue, the FIA issued an exception rule allowing drivers to use their best three seasons over the past four calendar years. It is a rule that still stands.

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